As a longtime believer in ego reduction, I come at this with bias against being soothing toward oneself [or, as I term it, "the dastardly deed of giving yourself a pass for doing a bunch of stupid shit].
But studies this century on ego have changed the terminology and a sense of what the ego might be and what stable egos might be like. Now, perhaps, ego at its "best," is either quiet or silent, and that it might be good, for some, if not all, to direct compassion toward oneself.
Input from the mission
While matters of outwardly-directed love and compassion come up rarely at the mission [either in the milieu of Homeless World or in the preachers' sermons], they do come up in rather weird ways. One usually-hate-mongering preacher said something I've been mulling over: "God doesn't love you (and everyone else, equally) because of who YOU are, but because of who HE is." The line got hardy approval from the congregants. [Congregants DO hear of how they are much loved, but not about how they should themselves love.]
My immediate reaction was "What the hell!? If He doesn't love us for who WE are, individually, but wholly because He is who He is, then He must love us conceptually, and not for ourselves. And, truly, one can only love a being for his/her unique constituent of qualities; otherwise, it ain't love."
[But, then, God being God, knowing us from the inside, as the Christian preachers claim, He may ONLY be able to know us as particular persons and NOT as conceptions. He knows the numbers of hairs on the head of each of us, it says in the Bible (Matthew 10:30 & Luke 12:7.)]
Later thoughts of mine on the matter were even less damning: We can evoke love of others. We have that power. We can direct ourselves toward loving our enemies (as Jesus famously instructed), for example. At least we might if they are not so narcissistic that they are constantly game-playing. [I don't think a mentally healthy person can love someone whose authentic self is fully shielded. "There's no there there," as is said by psychiatrists about sociopaths.] Still, I insist loving the particular person is necessary for it to be love; people (as opposed to God) cannot love someone conceptially.
From what I understand, when Jesus said "love thy neighbor as thyself," one interpretation is that he meant "love they neighbor instead of thyself." For him to have meant "love thy neighbor in the same manner as one loves thyself" -- which is the usual interpretation -- presents curious problems. For one thing, we don't know ourself in the same way we know others. While we may think of ourself in the third-person, we never experience ourself in the third-person. Our relationship with ourself is radically different than the relationship we have with others. We can't bestow love to ourself in the same way we can to others; the two "loves" are wholly, radically, spectacularly different beasts.
It's a more than a little like comparing making love to masturbation. These are greatly different experiences because you can't be "the other" to yourself.
To my way of seeing things, compassion necessarily comprises an element of ignorance that we don't have about ourself. [While we are ignorant about things relating to ourself, when we are compassionate toward ourself, the same "ourself" that is bestowing the compassion is receiving the compassion, thus it is fully informed. Compassion we give to ourself is directly, overtly twisting what we immediately beforehand had seen as the truth.
Compassion toward another is given from a different viewpoint, different worldview and from a base of different data about the situation than what "the other" is going by. Compassion, because of its otherness, is enlarging. Compassion you direct at yourself is skewing and screwy and very much NOT a second opinion, from another perspective.
Beyond the self
In their paper "Beyond the Individualistic Self" by Drs. Korsgaard and Meglino in Transcending Self-Interest, the writers/researchers tell us that those who attempt to be both self-regarding and other-regarding end up with conflicted decisions and end up choosing self over other. Thus, only those who are "Other Oriented" benefit from full-throttle compassion.
Other Orientation Quiet Ego
Rational Self-Interest Noisy Ego
Collective Rationality Phobos
In the chart at right, you can see the four types of egos that result from different combinations of high or low interest in self or others.
Mindlessness is a category that includes individuals who are low in both self-and other-interest. This mode of behavior is posited to involve functioning in obedience to commonsense rules. Behavior has been documented extensively in research on automaticity [Bargh & Chartrand: "The unbearable automaticity of being."] and mindlessness [Ellen Langer on Mindlessness, or, see her 1989 book Mindfulness].
Rational Self-Interest [High in self-interest; Low in other-interest] is egoism in its most-rigorous form (i.e., the "noisy" ego). Individuals pursue only self-serving goals. This type of reasoning underlies classical economics [unfettered capitalism!] and value expectancy models of attitudes and motivation [Ajzen: "Nature and operation of attitudes"].
Collective Rationality [High in both self- and other-interest] Individuals engage in rational judgment. While trying to maximize outcomes for both self and others, self-oriented goals triumph according to studies [That is, a self-serving bias wins out [Bazerman et al:. "Why good accountants do bad audits," in Harvard Business Review.] [Also, see DeDreu et al: "Motivated information processing, strategic choice, and the quality of negotiated agreement."]
Other Orientation [Low in self-interest; High in other-interest] Individuals are focused on benefitting others and apply principles or norms of behavior to meet these goals, obviating the need to consider personal consequences. [The "other" may involve a pair or group within which the self is subsumed.] This is the 'extreme' in quieting the ego. [See Meglino & Korsgaard "The Role of Other Orientation in Reactions to Job Characteristics" in the Journal of Management.]
But another view comes from Dr. Kristin Neff [in her Transcending Self-Interest paper "Self-Compassion: Moving Beyond the Pitfalls of a Separate Self-Concept" and from Dr. Paul Gilbert, editor of Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy.
Writes Neff, "Self-compassion can be thought of as a type of openheartedness in which the boundaries between self and other are softened -- all human beings are worthy of compassion, the self included. In this way, self-compassion represents a quiet ego, because one's experience is not strongly filtered through the lens of a separate self."
I'm not sure I understand Neff, nor that she makes a good case for self-compassion, generally, but in case histories in Paul Gilbert's book I can see how some individuals are aided in overcoming trauma by soothing themselves with inward-directed compassion. For most of us, though, I have to think that loving ourselves is necessarily non-compassionate because of the self-other conflict that ensues.
At her website, Self Compassion, Dr. Neff writes, "When individuals feel self-pity, they become immersed in their own problems and forget that others have similar problems. They ignore their interconnections with others, and instead feel that they are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection."
Well, maybe so. Certainly Dr. Neff has researched the matter extensively. But I cannot see that people applying what they want to be compassion toward themselves doesn't become, really, self pity. One's relationship with oneself is, necessarily, self-oriented so only self pity occurs when one feels sorry for his- or her-self. Feeling sorry for others is the 'road in' for having compassion for others. Feeling sorry for oneself always, it seems to me, becomes self pity.